Virginia lawmakers pledged today to renew their efforts to trim public college bills after learning that the $75 million they set aside to finance tuition cuts will save the typical student less than they had hoped.
Another effort to cut expenses for students could come as soon as the next legislative session, particularly with a healthy economy continuing to generate surpluses.
State officials, dismayed by a report this week from the State Council of Higher Education on college costs, criticized the state's 15 public colleges for raising noneducational fees, including room and board.
Those increases helped water down the 20 percent tuition cut proposed by Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) and approved nearly unanimously in the General Assembly. But a bigger factor in limiting the impact of the tuition cut was the relatively small role tuition plays in overall college costs for many Virginia students.
Those who live on campus--and pay far more in room and board than in tuition--have college bills just 4 percent less than last year's, according to the report, which has made clear to lawmakers and some in the administration that $75 million buys only so much relief.
Gilmore, expressing disappointment about the rising fees, said the issue of lowering overall cost is still important to him.
"It's very much on my radar screen," he said. "My objective was to make college more accessible and affordable to average folks."
Legislators also are showing enthusiasm for revisiting student costs in the upcoming session. "I think the news people will remember, how 20 percent became 4 percent, will bring it back," said Del. Kenneth R. Plum (Fairfax), Virginia Democratic Party chairman. "Higher ed is going to remain on the agenda--its access, its opportunity and its affordability."
The report highlighted how much it costs to trim the bills of Virginia's 163,000 undergraduates paying in-state tuition. The $75 million reduced bills an average of $557 for each student, but the rise in other fees has eaten away an average of $176 from the savings of those who live on campus.
But even at George Mason University in Fairfax, which held fees steady, the total cut in college bills is only 6.2 percent for a student living on campus. That's because room and board is far more expensive than tuition, which amounts to about one-third of the cost of most public colleges for in-state students living on campus.
"The whole thing took on an improper flavor from the beginning, that it was a 20 percent cut to all costs. It was never supposed to be," George Mason President Alan G. Merten said. "For universities who did nothing with the fees . . . 6 percent was the best we could do."
He also noted that 22,000 of George Mason's 25,000 students don't live on campus, which means they see a bigger percentage savings, as do students at Virginia's 23 community colleges.
Not all colleges did as well controlling costs. Most averaged an increase of about 3 percent in noneducational fees. That was above the inflation rate and enough to get the attention of the cost-cutters in Gilmore's administration.
"Where is the business discipline?" Gilmore policy adviser Lee Goodman said. "Why can't a university administration re-prioritize and run itself more like a business?"
Old Dominion University President James V. Koch said many fees pay for things that tax dollars shouldn't, such as athletics, parking and housing, and that those costs continue to rise. "I don't know how to make my parking lot more efficient," Koch said. "I don't have lots of room to move in a lot of these areas."
Although there is a consensus in favor of continuing to bolster the state's spending on higher education, there is a deeper debate on how to do it. Many college presidents and many lawmakers would like more state money to expand programs, raise salaries and otherwise burnish the state's reputation as having some of the finest public colleges in the country.
Gilmore has preached quality and also focused on bringing prices down, lowering what he considers a bar to self-improvement for middle-class young people. It's an expensive project and one that siphons money from other initiatives at the colleges.
"It's pretty hard to make them less expensive," said Del. James H. Dillard II (R-Fairfax). "There's only so much you can squeeze."
A major reason for Virginia's expensive public colleges is a historic shortage of public funding compared with other states, though Gilmore has increased spending by 25 percent.
"The bottom line is we have to spend a hell of a lot more on higher education," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax). "I think we've made a pretty good dent in it, but we have a long way to go."
CAPTION: George Mason President Alan G. Merten said 22,000 of the university's 25,000 students don't live on campus, which means they see more savings.